If you’re any bit a fashion enthusiast, you must’ve noticed the subtle revolution various Indian prints are bringing to the industry. As the minimalist indo-western trends take the fashion world by storm, here’s a little something about where and how it all originally began.
Block printing, an ancient means of embellishing fabrics, originated in the contiguous arid region shared by Gujarat, Sindh and Rajasthan. Though block printing today is practiced in various parts of India, each region retains a distinct flavor, owing to several factors the motifs, the mineral content and base levels of the water source, the natural pigments available and the quality of the wood used in making the hand-carved blocks. Gujarat is home to several techniques of the craft tradition, including surface ornamentation, resist-printing and discharge printing. Resist printing refers to any method of coloring fabric by pre-treating the surface areas with thread, wax or other materials to resist penetration of the dye. Discharge printing is a technique whereby a color-destroying agent is applied to a dyed fabric to bleach out or lighten the pigmentation, creating an intentional effect. The main block printing clusters of Gujarat today include Ajrakhpur and Dhamadka (Ajrakh print, mordant dyeing and resist-printing), Mandvi and Mundra (Batik), Ahmedabad (pigment printing, discharge printing, Dabu and Khhadi print), and Deesa (Dabu)
Dabu printing is a form of resist-printing, more common to Rajasthan, where a paste is created from mud with natural gum and donkey’s dung as the base and then printed by blocks onto lightly dyed fabric. The fabric is then dyed again with a darker color and then dried in the sun. The process repeats for the number of colors involved. Once the mud paste is removed, beautiful motifs are left behind.
Khadi print involves layering an adhesive in the form of motif onto the fabric and then dusting golden or silver powder on top to create an opulent surface. Traditionally used to decorate ceremonial and ritual textiles, the craft is on the verge of extinction.
Block printing is the most direct form of block printing. It involves four preparatory steps: washing, pre-treating, and drying the fabric, and securing the fabric to the printing table. For precision, the artisan markets the areas to be block printed. The block is then into the prepared dye and impressed onto the fabric. The number of colors used in the design dictates the number of blocks required to fix the pigments to the finished product, the fabric is washed in the river and then dried in both sun and shade.
Ajrakh textiles date back about 4,500 years old, to the time of the Indus Valley Civilization. The word Ajrakh was possibly derived from the Arabic azrakh, which means deep blue. It might also stem from the Urdu phrase aaj ke din ra4h, meaning leave it for today. This beautiful reference is a telling tribute to the patience demanded by such elaborate crafts traditions. The printing style was brought to Kachchh by the king Rao Bharmal I (1586-1631). He invited artisans, including Hindu Ajrakh printers, from Sindh about 400 years ago to meet the growing needs of the court and the expanding population.
Ajrakh is produced from a painstaking and sophisticated process that requires 15 to 21 days, to complete. It involves 14 to 16 steps, including varying stages of dyeing and resist-printing using natural dyes and mordents. Ajrakh’s trademark depth of color would be impossible with surface printing alone. The resist and designs are printed on the cloth using a series of intricate hand- carved wooden blocks with geometric patterns. The traditional shades include madder red, indigo blue, iron acetate black and white, retained from resist techniques. Locals believe indigo has a natural cooling and warming effect depending on the season, an important feature in semi desert regions. Ajrakh is printed single sided or double sided. The artisans are so adept that the design on double-sided prints is identical and seamless.
Batik may have traveled to India through trade routes with Asia, the Middle East and Africa. In Gujarat, the Khatri community are the originators of Batik printing. Khatri artisans settled in and around Mandvi and Mundra. Both of these towns were thriving port cities. More recently, Gujarat exports of Batik surged to the United States during the “hippie movement” of the 1960s.
In Kachchh, Batik artisans use wooden blocks to stamp wax across the prepared fabric.
These waxed portions do not absorb the dye, therefore retaining the original color. However, small amounts of pigment seep through the fine cracks in the wax, leaving behind supple strands of color in the design – a trademark feature of Batik. The fabric is then dyed. Next, the fabric is boiled, during which the wax melts away. After another cold-water rinse, the entire process is repeated for each color, until the design is complete with the range of colors intended. In the final stage, the fabric is sun-dried.
Explore many more such stories of art, craft and culture at Rann Utsav, a place that gives you a peek into the beauty of Gujarat.
Source: Department of Tourism, Government of Gujarat, 2016, Gujarat Tourism: Through the Lens of Arts and Crafts